Betty Ford -The First Lady of Recovery

Author William C. Moyers offers his thoughts on the legacy of former First Lady, Betty Ford.

To the world, she was the first lady of the United States.

To women everywhere, she was a high-profile survivor of breast cancer who inspired in others the strength to persevere.

To a tight cadre of the rest of us, she was a "fellow traveler" whose story underscored that addiction does not discriminate and neither should recovery from it.

"My name is Betty Ford, and I am an alcoholic and a drug addict," she often said in greeting patients who sought help at the treatment center bearing her name in California. Her upfront disclosure always had a calming effect on people who walked, stumbled or were wheeled into the Betty Ford Center under the influence or terrified about what was on the other side of life without substances.

The first and only time I met her was in the late 1990s. The president and CEO of the Betty Ford Center, John Schwarzlose, had invited me to speak to a gathering of the organization's volunteer leadership. Ford and her husband, former President Gerald Ford, sat at one of the tables in a private room at a restaurant, intently listening to my presentation on the importance of eliminating the stigma of addiction in society.

Thinking back on it now, I should have been in the audience and let her do the talking.

Mrs. Ford "came out" as an addicted woman in recovery from alcohol and pain medication long before I ever got sober, and she used her public reputation to put a face and a voice to an illness with a stigma shrouded in secrecy, silence and shame. Remember that this was the 1970s, before the masses became numb to famous people who inadvertently make news with intoxicated stories with bad endings. That she voluntarily shared her own struggles was notable. That hers was a story that included treatment and sustainable recovery not only was extraordinary but also gave people real hope.

Later she started the addiction treatment center that became a magnet for troubled Hollywood stars, professional athletes and the "highest" in high society.

But I'm certain it was the addicts and alcoholics who never made it to the Betty Ford Center who spurred her to tell her story over and over again.

"You know, William, the most important responsibility that you and I and others have is to use our own stories to tell others that everything is going to be OK," she told me after my presentation. Her real day-to-day satisfaction, she said, came from the people who had heard her story and were inspired to get help for themselves or a family member. She never met most of them but received thousands of letters from people who had followed her path to recovery.

In the last decade of her life, Ford helped to champion legislation to end discrimination by insurance companies against people with addiction or mental illness. She teamed with Rosalynn Carter, whose husband had defeated hers for the presidency in 1976, in media appearances, phone calls and letters to policy leaders, and visits on Capitol Hill. Their names were a weighty reminder that bipartisan illnesses demand a bipartisan solution. Even still, it took until 2008 for Congress to pass parity legislation. Today that legislation is law, though many insurance plans continue to resist it and the Obama administration has not done enough to enforce it.

A headline announcing her death proclaimed, "Betty Ford Helped Pave Road to Recovery for Stars." Not really. She blazed a bright trail through the dark galaxy of addiction for the rest of us with her willingness to tell everyone, "My name is Betty Ford, and I am an alcoholic and a drug addict."

Article originally published on July 16, 2011